Tanka Part One: Native Representations

By Taylor Schad

It’s mid-March, I’m in the cab of my family’s Ford pickup, my mom is driving and my older sister sits shotgun, across from me is my little sister or Tanka as we say in our Native language. She’s not so little anymore – at 6’2” she towers over the rest of our family, myself included. I’ve been waiting for the perfect chance to sit down and finally have this interview with her, due to her fully packed athletic schedule and my service down in the Rosebud reservation, it has been more than six months in the making.

I pull out my pen and paper, and right away the jokes start about how out of date I am with technology. I switch to the computer to appease my family. I look over at my sister to ask my first question and she looks back at me and tells me that she’s a little nervous, I tell her how I expect her to be a complete professional, no funny business, and don’t forget to say “off the record”! We burst out laughing.

I ask my first question, “Tell us a little about yourself.” She looks around, thinks for a second, glances over at me and with a smile on her face asks, “do the questions get easier?” We laughed again because if there’s one thing us Schad girls are not good at doing it’s talking about ourselves. We collect ourselves again and she prepares to answer.

Before I tell you her response, I should say that when I first got the idea to do this interview and I pitched it to my sister I was a little hesitant. She has always been the little girl who looked to my mom, my older sister, or me for guidance when put in a situation that she wasn’t familiar with. In my eyes, she was the goofy younger sister who marched to the beat of her own drum but fell in line when things got serious. I was afraid that she wouldn’t know how to answer the questions in her own voice and that she would continue to lean on us for direction, I am happy to say that I was completely wrong. With the certainty of someone going into battle she says, “My name is Lauren Schad, I am from Rapid City, South Dakota, I am a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, a Division One Athlete with the University of San Diego, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in English, and I hope to go into the field of primatology or perhaps play overseas.” With that, she looks at me with a serious expression on her face and is ready for the next question.

This new version of my sister stunned me, no more was the girl who use to run around with underwear over her pants and workmen goggles over her head, no, this was someone completely different; mature, eloquent, mindful, and most importantly confident. She knew what she wanted to say, and if she didn’t, she took a break, quietly collected her thoughts, and then gave her answers. To say she surprised me would be an understatement.

I move on to my next question, “What does being Native American mean to you?” She responds,

It’s something that gives me a sense of pride and purpose regardless of what I’m doing, either it’s playing volleyball or my academic studies. It’s a way for me to come back to my roots and my culture. It means representing so much more than my individual self and it’s a sense of community that I can’t find anywhere. It’s a way for me to come home.

And come home she has, at least for a week. Being a starting player on one of the best collegiate volleyball teams in the nation really does occupy your time, in total she gets around two and half months of out the entire year off, this includes summer and Christmas break. During season she dedicates five days a week, three to four hours per day to practice, conditioning, cardio, and weightlifting. During pre-season (August) she has two-hour practices twice a day and weight lifting three times a week. Her summer break ends about a month after she gets home because summer session starts, this entails going back to campus and doing open gym three times a week for two hours each day, along with weightlifting from 7:00 to 8:00 am, three days a week as well. Understandably, investing so much time and dedication into her athletic craft must takes its toll but for Lauren, being able to realize how important and influential she is to so many young Native athletes is one of the reasons she has been able to persevere in her athletic career.

I move into the prime topic of the interview – “How does it feel when you seen non-Natives replicating imagery and characteristics?” She responds in a very composed manner, “F*** them!” Then she asks if she can even say that, I tell her I’m going to write it down either way. She expands upon this initial thought by saying,

I think it makes them look very ignorant because a majority of the time none of them even know the significance of what they are “trying” to replicate. I think it’s disheartening to be surrounded by people who still think that wearing another culture’s traditional regalia is a means to look cool or simply something to wear to a concert. I’m embarrassed to be in a community or society where downplaying someone’s culture through costume is a social norm.

Lauren and I are in complete agreement on this; cultures are not costumes, period. There is no grey area where dressing up and imitating someone’s culture or traditional regalia is acceptable. Unfortunately, the day-and-age that we live in almost promotes cultural identity theft. Society expects people to fit in and look a certain way; even the ideology around “hipster” fashion promotes inclusion to a degree. It tell people that to look good you must look different, original, or naturalistic and what’s more different than indigenous identities? The fact of the matter is when you make a calculated effort to be different you are actually falling into formation when it comes to the image of yourself that you promote and in this case the people who suffer from this identity theft the most are Native Americans.

I continue my questioning about imagery and how they relate to Native mascots. In the beginning of the 2015 volleyball season my sister was scheduled to play a team whose mascot is the image of a Native American. Ever since that game I had always wondered what is was like to play against a team who is replicating your culture; who was wearing your likeness on their jersey as a way to tokenize your identity. I ask her, what kind of mentality did you have or have to take-on going into that arena; onto the court knowing that your opponent had a stereotypical image of an Indian on their uniform?

The answer she gave me filled me initially with shock then pure pride. She said,

“Before I answer this question I must also mention that my own school’s mascot is also a depiction of a stereotypical image of a Torero so I think going into certain games, especially with a lot of the mascots we have in college sports today, you have to go in with a different mentality.”

Prior to this sit down I was very familiar with Lauren’s school mascot, I didn’t directly ask any questions about her stance on the Toreros because I didn’t want to catch her off guard or put her in position where she felt like she couldn’t fully express herself because of her duty to her school. I’m proud to say that she took the responsibility to address this issue completely on her own.

She continues, “I don’t think in any circumstance a specific group of people and their culture should be used as a mascot and it’s tough when you play teams that are directly representing the culture you come from and sometimes, from an athlete’s point of view, you have to tell yourself it’s just a game, but as soon as the game is over you kind of have to try to beat those individual battles and do what you can to prevent this from happening to other groups and your own.”

When talking about the teams and players, specifically who wear these images as mascots, Lauren makes sure that people know, “[she] has no personal vendetta against the individuals who play for that school but rather a problem with the institution who promotes it.” I can tell from the way she eloquently and completely answers my questions that she has thought about these issues many times.

I ask, “Do you think Native American mascots are honoring those that they are portraying?”

I think everyone will give different answers for this question and you have to look at the context in how they are being represented but overall I think mascots should not be a means to represent a specific culture. It focuses a lot on how their being illustrated, most scenarios where I have seen this, it puts Native Americans under a very stereotypical light, example R*dsk*ns and Seminoles. In this case I would not say it’s embodying what it means to be Native American rather than what other people “think” it means.

Often people forget that the imagery they are representing are of real living people; people who have struggled and been exploited for generations. I always hear the argument about how Native Americans have bigger problems to concern ourselves with, that mascots are the least of our worries but the truth is if we can’t even control our own identity, if our image isn’t even ours, how do you expect us to fix the “bigger” issues? Children grow up and see these images of Indian heads screaming in a fit of rage on national sports channels and they start believing that that’s all people see of their culture; aggressive, angry, and barbaric. This is not true, this is not who we are as Natives in America, and we deserve more. I was told that as Lakota all we have is our voice. We can’t speak for anyone else but we sure as hell can speak for ourselves and that’s what we need: educators, students, and ATHLETES, to take the responsibility to step up and speak up about the misrepresentation of Native imagery. Lauren says,

I think anybody has the power to speak up about these issues but when you are put in a position where you are able to speak to a larger audience I think it’s important to highlight the issues that matter, especially those that matter to you. As soon as you obtain a position or find yourself in a situation like mine there’s a certain standard that not only other people have to hold you to but also yourself and it’s your responsibility to do as much as you can, as long as you can, for the things that matter to you.

After our long discussion about mascots and imagery I want to leave part one of this interview off on a positive note, especially for Lauren and all the hard work she has been doing as an athlete and as a Lakota woman. Lauren has done something amazing; she’s inspired young Native women to dream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to our reservation and people have asked me if I’m related to Lauren or if I know who Lauren Schad is and how in awe of her they are. I’ve learned from Lauren’s experiences and my own that when you’re Lakota you are so much more than yourself. Every uphill battle and accomplishment you achieve is not only yours, but an entire nation’s. You will always have someone in your corner fighting for you even when you find it hard to fight for yourself. We have a saying in Lakota, Mitakuye Oyasin, it roughly translates to, All My Relations but it means, in my eyes, the sum of who you are is so much greater than you will ever know because we are all related and we all are fighting for one another.

I finish my questions by asking, you are one of the best collegiate Native American volleyball players in the nation, how does that feel? What kind of responsibility does that entail for you as an athlete and a Native American? She graciously replies, “Thank you. Something that I have always been reminded is to stay humble and credit the things that brought me to where I am today instead of giving credit solely to myself. When I look at all the people who helped me get to where I am today it makes me extremely happy and thankful that I still have those people in my life. It’s exciting to think about what I can take on next with them by my side.”

She continues,

“Individually as an athlete, and as a Native American, the responsibilities differ slightly but when you combine the two it creates a higher accountability, you have to be representing an institution and a culture and respect both of them. When you hold a position, like mine, it’s almost essential to remember that whatever you’re doing you’re setting an example. It’s important to give, especially the youth, a foundation for their dreams and being an athlete and a Native American, I feel like I can do that, much like my sisters have done for me.”

As a Native American you never do anything alone; your nation, your tribe, and your people will always be by your side. People get so caught up in what Native Americans don’t have they forget to appreciate what we do; we have each other and we have our homeland, no matter how far away we go, it will always be there waiting and expecting our return however long or short it may be. As I mentioned earlier, Lauren had only returned home for a week but she is still able to make an impact within our family and in the land of our people.


Part Two Coming Soon